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Go with the flow
by Edith Wagner
This is a bit of a different reunion story because, while many reunions meet and stay in one place, this is a reunion road trip. And, as such, weÕll assume it is a small, rather intimate reunion. Girlfriend reunions are big right now or guy friends going fishing. Or a reunion of cousins, particularly older cousins who can enjoy a leisurely, several day drive. Or neighbors, maybe former neighbors and even book clubs who typically meet in homes. Now they can go away to a bed and breakfast whose massive, albeit cozy living room was built specifically for book clubs to curl up in front of a roaring fireplace.
There are likely many examples of areas where a road trip would be a fun reunion like the Texas Hill Country or Sonoma County in California, or the Smokies in Tennessee. This road trip is along the mighty Mississippi River on WisconsinÕs Great River Road National Scenic Byway. This trip passes through 33 historic river towns and borders some of the most important wetlands in the US. A mouthful but so worth your attention.
Here the river and the rail lines tell the story of significant gritty, albeit romantic American history. The wide valley through which the river flows was formed thousands of years ago by the massive torrents of water produced by melting glaciers. Over the centuries, the meandering river sculpted the floodplain below, producing an elaborate maze of channels, islands and sloughs.
Along with being one of the most scenic rivers in the nation, the Mississippi is a true working river still today with barges, a lock and dam system and train tracks paralleling the river, all living in harmony with nature. The riverÕs water level is controlled by locks and dams, many visible along the Great River Road. And the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line along the River Road remains quite active with dozens of trains passing along the route each day. Hint: This is an amazing journey for anyone who loves trains.
Tourists welcome! But, beware, these are real people, who will welcome you with open arms and a friendly smile and word. These are often towns between two bluffs cut again by river, rail and Highway 35. Along this narrow strip and off shoots that you imagine, you will find so much to satisfy all tastes that you will wonder, as I did, why you never did this before.
Small towns abound and each with much to speak to itÕs character and characters (pun intended). YouÕll want the story of each settlement and can find it quickly from a hostess or shopkeeper who will also direct you to whatever your desires are. Some of your myriad choices along the Great River Road are exploring, eating, shopping, fishing, hiking, birding, biking, kayaking, golfing and more.
History is on display wherever you go in the old and lovingly restored storefronts, factory buildings and homes. B&Bs and inns continue that charm fronted by ever generous and resourceful proprietors, many of whom are transplants from places like Minneapolis. They find this an idyllic spot to enjoy their less hectic lives which they are eager to share. Many of the proprietors are
You can swing ever so slightly east along the way and explore Amish country near Cashton or to Westby a strong Norwegian community.
My trip took us from Prescott on the north to Potosi on the south. The Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center at Freedom Park in Prescott is a must to establish a perspective for your journey. You can gaze up and down the river valley from atop a 400-foot bluff to see where the mighty Mississippi and St. Croix rivers meet.
The Flyway, a boon for birders
The Mississippi River Flyway is the most important avian migratory route in North America. A total of 326 bird species (60% of all birds, 40% of all migratory waterfowl in North America and one-third of all species on the continent!) use the river valley as a spring and fall migratory flyway. WisconsinÕs Great River Road is known for bald eagles, tundra swans and white pelicans.
Visit a small town ice cream shop that stops trains on their tracks, eco-friendly inns, towns who put themselves on the map, boat captains who are passionate about the Mississippi and spokespeople for places who invite the traveler to come on in.
Small town charm on WisconsinÕs Great River Road
The village of Maiden Rock named for young Dakota Indian woman, Winona, who leaped to her death from the top of the most prominent bluff began as a logging settlement in the 1850s.
Stockholm was founded by Swedish settlers in the 1850s and has an early history of fishing, clamming and ice. Ice was harvested from Lake Pepin and shipped to large cities.
StockholmÕs Blue Bicycles are available free for cruising at your leisure and at your own risk. Then, just return them to a convenient bike rack when youÕre finished.
Lake Pepin, the widest navigable part of the Mississippi River, got its name from the Pepin brothers, two of the first French trappers in the area. Pepin was a steamboat boomtown familiar to Mark Twain. Today Pepin is renowned as the birthplace and childhood home of Laura Ingalls, the author of the Little House books. The books describe the pioneering Ingalls and Wilder families during the 1870s-1890s. All nine of the famous manuscripts were penned here.
Alma has more than 200 19th century waterfront buildings on the National Historic District. They are built into river bluffs in the style of a European Village by the original Swiss and German settlers. The town is only two streets wide with 12 unique stairstep streets that go up the bluff.
-Danzinger Vineyards, featuring estate grown wines from local grapes -Frontenac, Prairie Star, St. Pepin, La Crescent, La Crosse, Frontenac Gris, St. Croix and Marquette.
Deviate slightly from the drive along the river to tour Cashton, WisconsinÕs largest Amish community. Learn about Amish history, traditions and customs, meet Amish families and shop for Amish products. Start your own tour at Down a Country Road whose shops are filled with products from 45 local Amish families; Amish made furniture, quilts, rugs, baskets, homemade candies, jams and jellies, maple syrup, honey products and more. Make a stop at Old Country Cheese-Amish Co-op and Cheese Factory in Cashton, which brings in 120,000 pounds of milk a day from more than 230 area Amish milk producers!
Then, drive to Westby to sample Norwegian heritage traditions, culture and ancestry passed down through generations since 1848. Westby is part of WisconsinÕs Southwest Driftless Area of hills and valleys, reminiscent of NorwayÕs fjords and landscape.
La Crosse is named for the French version of a Native American game played with long wooden sticks and a ball made of leather. Downtown Main Street is a Great American Main Street and one of the largest commercial historic districts in the state listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Nearby, Riverside Park, created in 1911 by dredging the Mississippi, is home to two authentic paddle wheelers, Riverside International Friendship Gardens and great Mississippi River views.
Kickapoo Valley, in the Driftless Area, is a region of unglatiated, mountainous terrain, with thousands of acres of active farms.
Soldiers Grove is ÒAmericaÕs first solar village.Ó Soldiers GroveÕs businesses were relocated following the flood of 1978, and relocation efforts in Gays Mills are under way from more recent flooding.
Victorian America at Villa Louis, in Prairie du Chien, is the estate of one of WisconsinÕs most prosperous families and a Wisconsin Historic Site, featuring costumed interpreters conducting tours of the house and revealing the story of the Dousman family.
PotosiÕs Main Street is the longest mainstreet in the world without a crossing intersection.
Potosi Point, is a finger of land that extends ½ mile into the Mississippi River and is a National Wildlife Refuge visited annually by 270 species of birds.
-St. Johns Mine, hard-hat tour through a once ore-rich cave, interpreting the mining history of Southwest Wisconsin
Potosi Brewing Company, a restored brewery features the Great River Road Interpretive Center, Potosi Brewing Company Transportation Museum, and the National Brewery Museum and Library, displaying thousands of brewery related artifacts.
Good places to stay along the way.
Quiet, rural, beautiful vistas and a very interesting host, Deb Hansen, make this place very special. There is a barn for your banquet. This is an ideal stop for book clubs because Hansen converted a large garage into a place just for book clubs with sink-down-into furniture that face a roaring fire in the stone fireplace.
N447 244th St.
Stockholm WI 54769
715-448-4001 , 602-920-9365 ; www.maidenwood.net
Little Bluff Inn
This is a vintage motel with some kitchenettes.
11451 Main Street
Trempealeau WI 54661
Inn at Lonesome Hollow
Hosts Pete and Nora Knaptik are fonts of area knowledge and fuel of suggestions for how to enjoy your time in the Kickapoo Valley.
15415 Vance Rd.
Soldiers Grove WI 54655
-Maiden Rock Inn This is a fascinating work in progress in a repurposed 1906 schoolhouse. (wine tasting of Alsatian wines in the grotto)